Still no clarity on Nationals’ spring training future

February 7, 2013

(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

 

In five days, the first wave of Nationals players, pitchers and catchers, will report to Viera, Fla., for spring training. Three days later, the rest of the team will arrive for what could be the last spring training held at Space Coast Stadium. The Nationals have explored — and continue to explore — their options outside of their somewhat remote location of Viera. But with another preseason on the east coast of Florida upon them, there is still little clarity on their spring training future.

Long tired of their long bus rides from Viera to their Grapefruit League opponents, the Nationals initiated discussions with Fort Myers and Lee County on the state’s Gulf Coast about vacant City of Palms Park, which is closer to other spring training opponents. The cash-strapped county, however, may have trouble meeting the Nationals’ $36.6 million requests for upgrades and renovations the stadium and minor league facilities. Brevard County, home to 19-year-old Space Coast Stadium, has recently stepped up its efforts to entice the Nationals to not break their contract and stay in Viera.

Lee County commissioners met on Monday to discuss City of Palms Park and, even though they conceded their limited finances could hamper a deal, wanted to continue negotiating with the Nationals. Having committed more than $80 million in a bond issue for a new Boston Red Sox stadium and having approved $42.5 million in upgrades to the Minnesota Twins’ facility, Lee County is limited in what it can offer.

“I just don’t how we get around the stumbling blocks financially that we’re at right now,” Lee County Commissioner John Manning said at Monday’s meeting. “I’d love to try to be more creative, and I’m open to suggestions and I’d love to have them, but I just don’t know if that’s the case.”

Lee County officials have talked with Nationals officials since the summer of 2011, and both sides met last year and have negotiated since. The Nationals hired a firm to draft a design for their vision of renovations and upgrades to the 21-year old stadium.

Lee County officials offered the Nationals $1-a-year rent at City of Palms Park until the county’s tourist tax fund replenishes enough to make major renovations, but the Nationals balked at that idea.

One discussed agreement on Monday included the Nationals paying $500,000 in rent a year for 30 years; with Lee County taking a surcharge on ticket, retail, parking and concession sales; and the county would phase in renovations over four years beginning with $15 million worth of upgrades. But county officials stressed that it would take some changes to the limited tourist tax fund, and require more financial involvement from the Nationals and the city of Fort Myers.

(According to a presentation at the meeting, the Nationals’ request included the following: nearly $23.3 million in stadium renovation and new construction to the major league facility and stadium; $8.69 million for the player development complex; $10.3 in a visitor’s center building renovation; $4.5 million in equipment and furnishing for all the facilities and $2.25 million in lighting, sound and infrastructure upgrades; and $750,000 for a new scoreboard.)

“The Nationals … want equal treatment to what they have seen other teams receive for spring training facilities, not just in Lee County and not just in Florida, but in Arizona as well,” said interim county manager Doug Meurer. “This is just their desire to stay consistent with what other teams have received for these improvements.”

Typical of any negotiations, the Nationals have more than one viable option and are presumably using each as leverage. Lee County has had an empty stadium since last season, and although they could convert the site into a stadium for other sports, they are paying debt service on an unused a working baseball stadium. Brevard County, even with an existing contract with the Nationals that expires in 2017, have heard the team’s complaints of travel and seen Lee County’s interest.

Brevard County Commission Chairman Andy Anderson met with Nationals officials in Washington on Jan. 25 to discuss potential upgrades and other incentives to ensure the team stays long term. The local tourism board recently backed the county board’s efforts to entice the Nationals, and Anderson said the local economic development commission would take the lead in negotiations with the Nationals.

If the Nationals were to break the agreement, they would be obligated to reimburse the county for remaining construction bond payments on the stadium until another team takes it over, according to the contract, along with other potential damages. Brevard County pays about $765,000 per year in bond payments, the final one coming this spring, according to county budget documents.

Although negotiations are under a confidentiality agreement, Anderson said the Nationals aren’t as concerned with renovations to Space Coast Stadium; he wouldn’t elaborate what else the team was seeking. But Anderson said he continues to work with charter flight companies about offering flights to the Nationals to games instead of long bus rides.

Anderson said he hopes to have a clearer idea of the Nationals’ future by the end of spring training.

“I felt pretty optimistic and they’re looking for a long term solution and we’re thinking we’re it,” Anderson said Thursday of his January meeting with the Nationals. “If you look at Fort Myers, they’re broke.”

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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James Wagner · February 6, 2013

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